FUGU & TAKO: A vfx director’s short film

Robot vfx has just made a short film, FUGU & TAKO, around 7.5 minutes long that follows the story of two Japanese salary men whose lives radically change when one of them eats a puffer fish in a sushi bar.
The film was written and directed by Ben West and has over 60 visual effects shots. We caught up with Ben to discuss his film.

fxg: Why this story? Why a subtitled non-english film?

Ben West: With FUGU & TAKO we wanted to make something really different. The story is based on an idea I had for some time. Originally the film was focused on live sushi but quickly evolved into the story of a man who eats a live puffer fish and how it affects his life. Who knows where ideas come from but when they arrive you have to run with them. The idea of doing the film in english never appealed. It had to be in Japanese. We want the audience to experience the world we have created within the film with authenticity. Our commitment was to realism in a kind of hybrid of narrative and mock documentary style.

fxg: How did you shoot the film’s live action?

Ben West: Alexa with Callan Green, Director of Photography. We had to use a minimal lighting plan and move quickly. Callan has an amazing eye. His instincts are to follow the actors which brings a real energy and life to each frame.The material was 1920X1080 Prores 4:4:4, we found it to be very clean. Hardly any noise or artifacts when compared to RED.

fxg: What was your pipeline?

Ben West: Our primary software is Houdini. We used it for its procedural workflow for everything from character animation to effects. All the animation was completed in Houdini with a specific facial rig used to match the actors’ performance and enhance where required. Dynamics were used extensively throughout to give a more naturalistic feel to the animation. Modelling of the head was done with Mudbox based on multiple scans of the actors head. We utilized vector paint to create multiple and complex displacements like the ears and spikes. We also created multiple texture maps for specific shaders.

On set - Behind the scenes shot

We tracked FUGU & TAKO using a combination of Mocha and Syntheyes. The actor wore a tracking cap with minimal facial trackers. I wanted the performance to be spontaneous without too many constraints. A great film requires great performances. The actor provided the essential basis for all the work that followed with the puffer head.

fxg:  Did you take HDRi from the various location – if so how much is the IBL?

Ben West: We constructed HDRI lighting setups, however, each shot required a specific approach to get the most out of the subsurface materials. For this we used V-RAY.

fxg: Can you discuss the process in matching the lighting, for example where the video projector goes over the CG face/head?

Ben West: To match lighting we used reference photography from set combined with a detailed study of the actor’s face. Matching overall tone and key lighting. Nuke was used to balance each shot where the head meets the body. The Karaoke scene with projection vision was done in NUKE with a tracked plate and offset projections.

fxg:  Can you discuss the sub-surface shaders (SSS) and how you got the right waxy feel to the face?

Ben West:  After months of testing we decided to turn to V-RAY. It has a fast SSS solution that provided a great foundation for us to work on.

The layers rendered included diffuse, specular,various reflection passes, refraction, global illumination, depth, SSS, and a lighting pass specifically for SSS. All rendered as EXR, the final composite was constructed in NUKE with 70% of the picture utilising SSS and the dry skin layer.

CG sushi

The challenge with creating realistic characters for us is in the skin and eye detail. It’s a constant push to narrow the uncanny valley. For the skin we utilised displacement for detail and an SSS lighting pass to create a dry, fine skin flake pass which narrowed the gap. The eyes involved a complex build to create a very realistic exterior whilst the ribbing of the cornea was modelled in detail. The end result involves true refraction, with SSS and reflections that bring life to the eyes.  The Sushi, for example, followed the same workflow with a translucency map to define thin edge refraction.

fxg:  What were the render times at worst?

Ben West: Render times varied from 7 – 30 minutes a frame depending on distance to camera.

fxg: How many people in the team were there?

Ben West: We have a small crew that expands based on project requirements. Currently we are finishing VFX on our first feature.


2 thoughts on “FUGU & TAKO: A vfx director’s short film”

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